“People Don’t Read”

By Glen Gonzalez May 20, 2019 Employee Communication Strategic Communication

“People don’t read.”

I’ve been told this consistently by clients throughout my career. If you believe this, then spending any effort on creating content and communication is futile. The only reason to put anything in writing is to comply with a law or ward off liability.

As a professional communicator, this would be a frightening fact to face. But, is it true?

If we look at the research, we could conclude that Americans don’t read that much. Here are a few highlights:

Unfortunately, this data is not that helpful in answering our question. For one, these are national averages. They might say little or nothing about your employee population. Second, these studies examine how much we read for personal interest. They don’t consider how much we read as part of our jobs, and I haven’t been able to find any good estimates for that.

It’s also important to acknowledge that reading is just one way we consume information. We also use sounds and images. We could also use tastes, smells and touch. Surely, you’ve offered a coworker a slice of birthday cake, been drawn (or repulsed) by the smell of popcorn or given a high five.

In our three-dimensional, multimedia world, we all know that the traditional definition of “reading” is far too narrow to encompass all the forms of content and communication we can create.

So, when a client says to me, People don’t read, what they’re really saying is:

People don’t pay attention.

And, that’s definitely true. Well, sort of.

Our brains evolved to help us survive, but we only have so much cognitive bandwidth at our disposal. We’ve become really good at focusing on things that matter most to us — like food or threats to our safety — and filtering out the rest.

But, let’s not throw our hands up with an exasperated, “People don’t read!” Instead, we need to realize that people only pay attention when you give them something worthwhile.

We can do something with that.

How to Get People to Read Pay Attention to Your Message

The phrase “pay attention” tells you what you need to know. Attention is like money. It’s our cognitive currency. We only have so much of it to spend, and when we spend it, we expect something in return.

Here are two simple tips to catch and keep your audience’s attention.

1. Write Better Headlines

In the workplace, it’s more likely that your message has at least some amount of inherent importance to your audience. But, remember, we are designed to block out signals we deem unimportant. Don’t make your audience work to find personal meaning or benefit. Don’t make it their problem to figure out whether what you’re trying to communicate matters. Make the meaning obvious from the get-go with a great headline.

Compare the following email subject lines:

SUBJECT: Important! New Facility Security Procedures

SUBJECT: How to get into your office, starting tomorrow

Which of these emails are you likely to open first?

When it comes to catching people’s attention, some communicators get caught up in trying to be clever. And, many marketers know how to use salacious headlines and quirky images to get you to click on a link. I think employers should be careful about using such gimmicks in workplace communications. These tactics essentially trick people into paying attention without giving them a satisfying serving of meaning or benefit in return. Not to mention, such tricks will probably violate your organization’s brand standards. Good creative emerges from understanding what is important to your audience and making that immediately understandable, not from being outlandish.

2. Write to You

Your headline (or subject line) makes a promise to your audience. You’ve promised to deliver information that is personally meaningful or beneficial in some way. The rest of your message needs to deliver on that promise. To do that, it’s best to “write to you.”

By that, I mean you should write in such a way that you can address the audience directly as “you.” Compare the following sentences.

A. “All eligible employees should enroll.”

B. “You should enroll.”

A. “All affected employees will receive an email.”

B. “You will receive an email.”

A. “All participating employees must log in.”

B. “You must log in.”

All the B sentences  speak to directly and clearly to me as a member of the audience. I know it’s about me and, let’s face it, talking about me is a great way to get me to keep paying attention. To boot, these sentences are much shorter and easier to read.

The A statements leave too much for the audience to figure out. Any doubt about personal relevance creates an opportunity for the employee’s attention to be tempted by untold distractions. Writing to you is not hard. In fact, writing to you makes writing content and communications much easier. What can be hard is figuring out what matters to your audience and whether or not you are able to specifically target the right “you.”

Sometimes, targeting “you” is a technical matter. Do you have the right email list? Will only the right people have access to the intranet page? Do you have a budget to create versions of the material so that the message can be sufficiently segmented? Whatever the limitation, go to it so you can get as close to “you” as possible.

In Short …

I think a key thing to remember is that the decision to read something is not solely a conscious one. While we can and do consciously choose to read things all the time, our attention is limited and selective. From out of a deluge of information, things we perceive as important to our survival and our nourishment draw our attention subconsciously, like a magnet. If you want people to read, craft your communications accordingly.